Sunday evening I was driving through one of the less fortunate parts of Greater Lansing. While doing so I realized that even as urban planners, many of us live in sheltered cocoons during most of our professional careers. Either we are in an office setting or at home in our neighborhoods of trendy urban-lofts or suburban, well-manicured lawns.
Too often, even as professional planners, we wear imaginary blinders when it comes to the less prosperous parts of town. We may pass through these areas now and then, or stay several hours for a community meeting or forum, but rarely do we spend adequate enough time to more fully understand the hardships that many residents are facing. Even if we are moved to take action, once back in our cocooned and comfortable surroundings the images and stories heard about life on the “blind side” of town gradually fades from our mind’s eye.
Every city has its “blind sides.”
- Those parts of town that the new economy has not discovered (or avoids).
- Places where good paying jobs involving hard work and labor were plentiful for many years, but now seem to have evaporated.
- Places where liquor stores, lottery vendors, pawn shops, and pay-day lenders feed upon the despair while occupying gated, retail fortresses amidst largely empty storefronts.
- Places where well-intentioned plans have been written, only to be shelved to dusty back rooms.
- Places where re-investment is little more than talk and just as cheap.
Here in Greater Lansing these blind places can be found principally the city’s north side and in portions of the southwest part of town.
- Attended Planning Commission meetings in a disadvantaged Southeast Michigan suburb where the windows of the meeting room contained bullet holes;
- Catalogued land uses for master plans in areas of utter despair;
- Seen commercial strips and neighborhoods boarded up and blighted by the indignity of economic decline; and
- Met with inner city residents on a variety of planning topics who care just as much as the rest of us about their neighborhoods, their schools, their property values, and their community at large.
Despite all of these experiences, I never fully comprehended the difficulties that so many of our fellow citizens many face until this past year or two. First, I happened to meet a family who is struggling mightily to survive day by day. The family is composed of a young mother raising a household of three daughters. They face the daily possibility of losing their heat, electricity, or subsidized apartment. To them, $50 is an instant treasure trove of wealth The fathers of the children rarely, if ever, keep up with their court-required child support payments, which makes budgeting expenses nearly impossible.
Secondly, I met a number of struggling individuals and families when my church covenant group volunteered to help hand out food donations this last winter. The stories recounted during the hours there were both eye-opening and heartbreaking. In a nation as prosperous as the United States, such conditions should be wholly unacceptable.
Lastly, one of my own extended family members has been struggling to make ends meet as an underemployed college graduate living in a fairly expensive housing market. Despite countless resumes mailed and applications filed, their situation remains unchanged. The American economy may be on the upswing, but it has not found their small corner of the world.
Each of these individuals/families are trying to make sense of a socio-economic system that deflates all hope; that refuses to offer second chances; which treats the less fortunate with disdain, contempt, and disrespect; and whose remaining bits of safety net are being dismantled piece-by-piece by malevolent forces right before their eyes.
Each time I think about how our nation mistreats the less fortunate among us, the more indignant it makes me feel. It is not a crime to be poor, but it sure is a moral and ethical crime to abandon them wholesale as is being done so often in this country.
Perhaps, just perhaps, if the political, corporate, judicial, religious, and especially the financial power brokers of this nation were required to live as the family described above must live for one month, they might actually see the individual and collective error of their ways. Each time I hear of a new example of corporate irresponsibility like the news emitting from J.P. Morgan Chase last week, I think that NOW would be the perfect time to impose such a sentence for their brazen actions.
As planners, we cannot solve these problems alone, but we must be strong and persistent advocates for restoring hope in the “blind sides” of our cities and towns. The one qualification I would add is not to impose some grand vision of what we think would be best. Instead, we must thoughtfully listen, learn, seek input, and fully involve those who live there. They know their neighborhoods and communities far better than any of us do or likely ever will.